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24 May 2017

My notes on AUTM 2017

Comment from Ananda Ghosh, Technology Marketing Associate, at New York University Langone Medical Center, Co-founder ClubSciWri

Author: Ananda Ghosh, marketing associate at NYU Langone Medical Center

After waiting patiently for nearly two years, I finally got a chance to attend the Association of University Technology Transfer (http://www.autm.net) 2017 Annual Meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA (thanks to NYU’s Office of Industrial Liaison)-perhaps the most important conference for the professionals in technology commercialisation. Like every first experience, AUTM 2017 will be etched in my memory as I start my professional journey into the world of innovation and technology transfer.

My first impression of AUTM was its unique platform which I felt was extremely open, liberal, friendly, approachable and yet educating each one of us in the most difficult and challenging topics of technology transfer. The conference centered around a central theme that is how to help the university innovations reach society in a streamlined fashion and how to fuel this innovation cycle so as to find workable solutions for diseases, energy crises, food & water scarcity, sustainability etc., which are our generation’s immediate challenges.

It was incredible to see an organization run by a group of “behind the scene volunteers” managing a conference of more than one thousand people with the precision of the quartz. The conference had knowledge sessions, training modules, a platform for industry-academia interactions, mentoring sessions, fireside chats, etc., all geared to foster knowledge sharing and to meet like-minded and the most innovative brains in the field. Whether it was Stanford’s Executive Director Katherine Ku’s fireside chat or a casual meeting with tech transfer leaders from prominent universities, there was only one message, and it was the promotion and development of university innovation through knowledge sharing.

It’s all about marketing 

Among my memorable moments of AUTM 2017 was the marketing course for beginners in technology transfer like myself. The course was taught by Arnaud Cottet, Jay Schrankler, Quentin Thomas, Harl Tolbert and Paul Tumarkin. It started with the concept of “BRAND” and what it means to university tech transfer offices (TTO). For TTOs brand is built upon visibility of the university TTOs and the quality and credibility of the technologies. The course discussed several  tools  to help a TTO’s marketing efforts. These included surveys, newsletters, social media, annual reports, outreach events, story telling, etc. Marketing was broken down to:

  1. Plan that involves creating the marketing  brief  and other materials, deciding who your audience is and the timeline. 
  2. Execution – Involves lead generation, marketing and following up. 
  3. Measure-Feedbacks. Each of these steps were elaborated using examples and group discussion which made the course really enjoyable and I also got to make great friends in the process.

Some concepts of technology evaluations were also covered in-depth, and the course ended with a talk by Jay Schrankler, Executive Director of the Office of Technology Commercialization University of Minnesota, on how to “sell a license.” He elaborated the selling process which includes- elevator pitch, value proposition, negative objective analysis, product knowledge (inventor), customer engagement. He also hammered in the idea of conducting a thorough background check on the company before coming to the negotiation table and to figure out who the “decision makers” are for the particular deal on the table. A key aspect during negotiation is that the “art lies in gathering information,” he stressed. One particular advice that I liked was “do not spill the candy in the lobby.” One needs to be careful about blasting out every detail of the license during initial discussions. But, one thing which the course emphasized throughout the session was that “relationship building” is the foundation of tech transfer. Whether it is marketing, tech assessment, negotiation or post negotiation management of the license deals one needs to build a great working rapport with the partners at every stage of the process. The better they get at it, easier it gets for the young professionals to start getting comfortable in the business.

Warming up to the Fireside Chat

Katherine Ku’s fireside chat was the highlight of the conference. Ku’s assertion that the goal of university tech transfer is perhaps not so much about the licensing income but to make sure that the nascent university technologies gets to see the light of the day struck chords with many in the audience. As a young entrant into the world of tech transfer, success stories of the non-exclusive license of Cohen Boyer Patent and Google licensing deal from Stanford was a treat to young professionals in the crowd (http://otl.stanford.edu/about/about_history.html).

Launching investable startups has never been more challenging

Since it is impossible to summarize all the lectures I attended, I chose one particular group discussion “Launching investable startups has never been more challenging” which was moderated by Louis Berneman from the Osage University Partners to showcase the quality of discussions which took place at the conference spread across 4 days. It was presided by David Day from the University of Florida, Todd Sherer from Emory, Teri Willey from CSHL, Robin Rasor from Duke, Orin Herskowitz from Columbia, Kathleen Denis from Rockefeller and Jon Soderstrom from Yale. I thought it was one of the most entertaining panel discussions of the AUTM 2017.

Alumni angel Network – How it can help bridge the funding gap

There was a particularly interesting discussion on harnessing university alumni network. The advantage of maintaining an excellent working relationship with high net worth individuals and angel investors from the alumni network (alumni angel network) and to work in close collaboration with the university development office so that the network can be integrated into the university innovation ecosystem was debated at length. Such a network can have huge implications when it comes down to helping university startups cross the valley of death. That alumni’s desire to “give back” could be harnessed to help the next generation innovators of the university.

Finding an investible CEo and in-house entrepreneurship program

A second discussion worth mentioning here is the challenge the universities face in 1) recruiting investible CEOs for their startups and 2) placing university technologies in the “right hands.” The thought leader’s answer to scout for investible CEOs was “meeting interesting people and maintaining a workable database of such individuals” and not through “resume search.” Most agreed “resumes don’t teach much about the leadership.” Orin Herskowitz spoke about Columbia’s “Executives in Residence Program” which saw spectacular success in harnessing future business leaders. The program allows close in-house interaction with successful entrepreneurs/thought leaders/company executives with Columbia students and inventors for one on one mentoring in areas ranging from media and investment banking to private equity and management, etc. The Columbia program which has been running for four decades has significantly contributed to the innovation ecosystem in Columbia.

NYU’s tech transfer office incidentally is also starting a niche entrepreneurial program called “The Biomedical Entrepreneurship Program” developed by NYU Industrial Liaison / Therapeutics Alliances in close collaboration with the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute. This will help accelerate the commercialisation of biomedical discoveries and inventions made at NYU. It will provide world-class mentoring to NYU students, postdocs and inventors, who are willing to start their entrepreneurial journey specifically focussing on biomedical innovations.

The problem of many

An another interesting point which was discussed was the wide variety of programs which runs in the universities and all aiming to help university innovation ecosystem with overlapping goals and objectives. However, the general sense from the discussion was that even though different university programs tend to be sometimes repetitive, in general, the decentralized approach of creating entrepreneurial awareness is not that bad. The “more the merrier” may appear to be an overkill, but as long as the goal is to boost the university innovation and help students and the community to take the innovation to the next level, it’s all good. But it was also mentioned that to try to bring all the various programs in synchrony might help the awareness campaign.

Looking forward

So those were my notes from AUTM 2017. One thing that I learned from my first AUTM meeting was the power of sharing knowledge and education for a common goal of helping the university innovation to see the light of the day. I think it’s an excellent time to be in the university tech transfer profession. I am glad that like many others in the field I will be able to see and probably contribute towards helping university-based cutting edge technologies solve some of the most difficult problems which the world faces today. At the same time, it will also be an interesting time for tech transfer professionals to see technologies in the space of artificial intelligence, data science, space technologies, drug discovery, etc., giving rise to the next Google or Genentech, pushing the world to the next era of technological revolution.

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